Hugo Shirley
Nessun dorma - The Puccini Album

This disc represents the fourth in what is an unorthodox discography being compiled by Jonas Kaufmann on Sony Classical. His Award-winning Winterreise and his bilingual Tauber tribute album are now flanked by discs of two great Italian opera composers. If his early Verdi album felt like something of a rush job, this new Puccini disc is a higher-quality product, with Kaufmann’s reassuringly expensive-sounding voice finding luxurious and ardent support from Antonio Pappano and his Santa Cecilia Orchestra, whose contributions, not coincidentally, were so important in making the tenor’s Decca verismo disc so fine.

There are shades of that recital here and the arias from Edgar and Le Villi recapture some of that rugged, rousing verismo form. Those roles recently essayed or likely to be in Kaufmann’s sights in the near future are also largely excellent. Dick Johnson suits his poetico-heroic manner well, although there have been sturdier performances of ‘Ch’ella mi creda’ on disc (turn to the remarkable but underrated Giuseppe Giacomini on his Bongiovanni recital for one). Luigi’s ‘Hai ben ragione’ from Tabbaro is similarly impressive, and there are few quibbles with Kaufmann in the title track, delivered (as the disc’s finale) with his trademark purring, mahogany-tinged tone and rising to a ringing top B.

But there are moments in ‘Non piangere Liù’ (alas cut short, through lack of extended ensemble, before ‘Ah! Per l’ultima volta’) that strike me as indulgent from singer and conductor. The extracts from Manon Lescaut that open the disc, by far the most extensive, are also a touch disappointing. Kristı¯ne Opolais, Kaufmann’s Manon in recent Munich and London productions (the latter due for release on Sony DVD next month, with extracts included among the goodies on an extra DVD in the deluxe edition of this release), joins him for three of the tracks but is underpowered and pallid, snatching at notes to which she should be able to soar.

As the disc goes on, the standard frustration with such bleeding-chunk programming also grows. The central part of the disc feels especially bitty: only a couple of minutes each of Butterfly (an ardent ‘Addio, fiorito asil’), Tosca, Rondine, Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi. The questionable wisdom of Kaufmann’s desire to include an extract from each of Puccini’s operas (minus, of course, Suor Angelica) is emphasised by the latter, too, in which Rinuccio’s elegant little aria is delivered with unwelcome Wagnerian heft and little grace. The chinks in Kaufmann’s armour – delivery can be more about emphatic extremes than long lines and a voice that is magnificent but short on squillo and colouristic variety – are also exposed in the Bohème duet. This had me reaching for the young Pavarotti and Freni on Karajan’s 1972 Decca recording, although the decision here to take the lower (written) option at the close is most welcome.

This disc shows that, at his best in the right repertoire, Kaufmann remains peerless today. But its being released so close to Warner’s new Aida also raises a question: when can we can expect something more substantial from the Kaufmann-Sony partnership?

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